San Lorenzo Valley High School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

As SLV High reopens, teacher misconduct investigation hangs over school community: ‘It feels yucky’

Comments on social media are mounting, but few in the tight-knit San Lorenzo Valley community are speaking publicly about the allegations swirling at SLV High. Some, it seems, are still sifting through the details and what they know of those accused. Others talk to Lookout here.

As San Lorenzo Valley High School freshmen arrive on campus for their first moment of in-person instruction on Tuesday, a concerning pall hangs over the school’s teaching ranks.

  • Two teachers remain out on paid leave, as a total of four district employees are being investigated by San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District based on social media posts and follow-up allegations made by current and former students in recent weeks. One of those teachers, Eric Kahl, is facing accusations of inappropriate behavior from at least five current or former students. He has denied their allegations through an attorney.
  • A former SLV High teacher, Michael Henderson, was in Santa Cruz County Superior Court on Monday facing multiple felony counts for allegedly sexually abusing a girl under age 14 — a case that dates back to 2019.
  • Multiple other teachers, past and present at the high school and adjacent middle school, have been singled out in posts on two Instagram accounts created to give voice to survivors of sexual assault.

As the comments on social media mount, few in the tight-knit San Lorenzo Valley community are speaking publicly about them. Some, it seems, are still sifting through the details of the allegations and what they know of those accused.

Others are experiencing the visceral effects of shock. As one mom of a sophomore put it: “I have to drop my daughter off at school and it just doesn’t feel right. You drive by the school and it feels yucky.”

Anger simmering behind the scenes?

Most parents with children in the high school agreed to speak with Lookout only on the condition of anonymity. Many of those who did speak say they are upset there has been no formal communication about the misconduct investigation since an April 1 letter was sent out by the district — and wonder whether a Wednesday night school board district meeting will bring clarity.

One parent, a former SLV High student in the 1990s, is speaking out, and putting her name to her criticism of the district.

Alicia DeRollo graduated from the school in 1995. Back then, she said she knew “several” students who ended up marrying their teachers or moved in with them after they turned 18. She declined to go into further detail about those teachers or students, citing concerns including possible legal repercussions.

But as DeRollo sees it, the district has a longstanding cultural issue that she believes enables abuse.

DeRollo has three children who have attended SLV schools — including her older daughter who will be returning to the high school for her senior year next year after being homeschooled as a junior during the pandemic.

But in light of her concerns with the school, DeRollo said she now plans to send her younger daughter to Santa Cruz High next year instead.

“I haven’t thought about the culture of abuse for years until my own children were students there, and nothing had changed,” DeRollo said in an email. “Some of the abusers still have jobs there. There were names that I had hoped I would never hear again and was disgusted, yet not surprised, to hear multiple accounts of a specific teacher’s grooming and abuse.”

‘Not like this was a onetime thing’

For the sake of clarity, Lookout has changed the names of the parents who agreed to speak anonymously about the investigation.

“It seems to me there’s some sort of culture going on at the school — either enabling or a blind eye,” said John, who is the father of a 15-year-old sophomore. “It’s not like this was a onetime thing. Like it happened once in 1985, then it happened again in 2010. Either leadership is turning a blind eye, or enabling it.”

Maria is John’s wife. She moved to Ben Lomond with her family when she was 2, attended SLVUSD schools all the way through and graduated from SLV in 1993.

Their daughter takes classes from both of the teachers who have been placed on leave. She said the oddity of the situation — on top of the isolation caused by distance learning — has had an extreme effect on her daughter. “She’s just not been herself. She’s been really down the past few weeks.”

But Maria said she also has told her daughter “thank god it has been a pandemic and you didn’t have to sit in a classroom with those men.”

Her primary issue is how the school has handled the situation. “They actually have to state that they have zero tolerance for this — zero,” she said.

Maria said she was a 15-year-old SLV student when a boy held her down and forced her to have sex. “I was date-raped,” she said.

Part of the reason Maria and her husband are choosing to talk openly about the situation at SLV High now is so they help prepare their daughter. Maria said she told her daughter about the date rape in the past few weeks.

“I told her ‘I’m not trying to scare you, not all men are like this,’” she said. “I just want you to be informed.”

Maria and John’s daughter will return to campus with the other sophomores, juniors and seniors next week. They don’t know at this point whether she will have substitute teachers. They say there has been no substitute for her one class; work has just been posted online for students to find and complete.

“So little information,” said Maria. “No one from the district will return my calls.”

A hard time getting cooperation

Susan has lived in the San Lorenzo Valley for 24 years. She has a son and daughter who graduated from the Felton campus in recent years and another daughter who is a junior there now.

She said she understands the muted community reaction given that some teachers implicated in the social media posts have had their names and pictures put out with no allegations or context behind them.

She said she has told her daughter to think critically through the situation: “I’ve told her if it’s firsthand information posted by a victim, ‘Yes, that should be taken very seriously. But when you know these are secondary and tertiary accounts you need to pause.”

But Susan also echoed the concerns of others, saying her family has had a hard time getting cooperation from SLV High administration when situations have arisen, including an incident that involved her son

“It was a pretty serious thing that happened to my son — but all of my correspondences went unheeded,” she said. “I don’t really want to go into detail because then everyone would know who it was.”

Investigation’s progress remains unclear

As freshmen report back to campus Tuesday, the progress of the investigation remains unclear. District officials have declined to be interviewed by Lookout, instead offering only basics about the investigation over email. The allegations, officials have said, have been forwarded to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.

Meanwhile, at the Santa Cruz County courthouse on Monday, Henderson, the former SLV High School computer science teacher, stood before a judge facing multiple felony charges that he allegedly abused a girl under age 14. The victim had been a private tutoring client of Henderson’s, authorities said at the time Henderson was charged.

Henderson, who pleaded not guilty after being arrested in 2019, was in court for a preliminary hearing, a special proceeding to decide if prosecutors have enough evidence to go to trial against a defendant. Judge Hector Ramon heard testimony from a former detective in the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office’s sex crimes division who led the investigation in the case. That testimony is expected to continue Wednesday afternoon.

Whether more parents will speak out as that case moves forward remains to be seen.

“I feel like the leadership in the school is more concerned with protecting the good name of the school than actually protecting the kids,” said John. “Whether it’s the principal’s fault or not, I think there needs to be a leadership change. Bring in new leadership and a new culture that makes it clear — and I know that 95% of teachers are probably great — that this is not acceptable.”

Contributing: Nick Ibarra, Patrick Riley

Your feedback